Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Kristen Stewart matters

Kristen Stewart is Cooler Than You

Kristen Stewart doesn’t want to be your friend. She doesn’t want you to like her. Or rather, she doesn’t care if you like her or not. She wears ‘ugly’ clothes in public, doesn’t bother to take off last night’s eye makeup, looks hungover, and uses a marijuana pipe in public. She has a mullet. She wears skinny jeans. She offers no comment on her relationship (or lack thereof) with costar Robert Pattinson. She has one acting style — which mostly employs putting her hands through her hair, not saying much, and biting her lip. But none of that matters, because Kristen Stewart herself is no star. But Bella Swan — that’s another matter entirely.

But she’s an immense object of fascination — photos of her are at a premium, no matter the mullet or generally dismissiveness of fame, adulation, publicity, etc.

And what really fascinates me about Stewart — or rather, about the amount of attention directed towards her — is that it’s almost entirely rooted in a specific persona that has subsumed her identity.

And that specific identity — and why she could do anything, truly anything, save becoming a lesbian, and would still maintain her popularity — is that of Bella Swan. For those of you not in the know, that’s the heroine of Twilight, and the fount of her fame.

Of course, Twilight was not Stewart’s first role — she was best known for her work as Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room and as a skinny, young, hopeful girl in love with the protagonist of Into the Wild.

Kristen Stewart and Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild

Before Twilight, she also filmed her role in Adventureland – a music obsessed 20-something with a penchant for older men, being angsty, and running her hands through her hair. (In other words: the same character she plays in Twilight, only she digs Lou Reed, et. al. See Alyx Vesey’s excellent post on her character as music geek here.)

But the role of Bella has truly defined her — and defined what her image means and will continue to mean to the general public. Even when she is photographed smoking pot on a doorstep, or holding hands with her boyfriend (who is NOT, or least WAS not, Robert Pattinson), or even appearing with non-Bella hair (as she’s currently filming the Joan Jett bio-pic), they cannot usurp the conflation of Stewart with her Bella persona. It’s as if Bella Swan is wearing a mullet wig — a total inverse of the actual situation, which has Stewart putting on a Bella wig to cover up her ‘real’ mullet haircut.

Being very un-Bella-like

Ultimately, the Stewart star image emerges as a hybrid between the inaccessible — the hipster Stewart — and the wholly accessible — Bella as near-universal point of identification. For in the narrative of Twilight, Bella is crafted as an almost non-personality…besides the fact that she is clumsy and likes cooking dinner for her father, there are very few specifics as to her looks, her hobbies, etc. Indeed, Bella functions as a cipher into which any reader — mom, daughter, whatever — may insert themselves. Hence the widespread Edward fascination: when so many women can identify so closely with the female protagonist, it’s no wonder that her love interest becomes the newest heartthrob, inspiring, in several cases, truly fanatic and destructive behavior. Thus: Stewart may be too cool for you, but Bella is you.

To my mind, this is a somewhat unique phenomenon, as the extraordinary/ordinary paradox is usually embodied within the star’s public image and simply accentuated/underscored by various film roles. Here, one specific film role performs the majority of the labor.

Other stars have been subsumed and their futures controlled by a particular role. Yet this phenomenon is most often associated with television personalities — people who play the same character every week, oftentimes for years at a time, thus firmly conflating themselves with a very particular character. In the case of Stewart, however, the phenomenon is rooted in the avid Twilight fandom. In other words, even though only one film has been released — the second Twilight film will be released this Fall; they’re currently filming the third — her face is now mapped onto each and every reader’s journey through the books.

I read the books over a year ago, at the hilt of the Twilight frenzy in the weeks before the Breaking Dawn release. The film had yet to be released, but I had seen the preview; Stewart’s face (and Pattinson’s) were the ones I unconsciously inserted into my visualizations of the text. Every time a Twilight fan — and trust me, readers, there are many of us, of all ages, feminist and non-feminist, with various feelings of ambivalence, rapture, and disgust — thinks about the character of Bella, it is Stewart’s face that pops up. She is Bella. And Bella loves Edward. And they are meant to be together — no matter what. No matter that one is supposedly a vampire. As the tagline of their romance would read, they are fated.

Which likewise explains the truly fanatic and sometimes absurd attempts to link Stewart with Pattinson in real life. Fans love a ‘real-life’ romance that mirrors the one that seduced audiences on-screen: that’s why the studios made up false relationships during the studio system, as best hyperbolized and satirized in Singin’ in the Rain.

Sometimes real life ‘mirror romances’ do occur — most recently, see the engagement of the two leads of True Blood (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer), the off-set relationship between Gossip Girl’s Serena and Dan (Blake Lively and Penn Badgely) and my personal favorite, the now-defunct romance between The Notebook’s Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling.

In some cases, these romances occur outside of studio machinations — McAdams and Gosling supposedly became romantically involved months after they filmed The Notebook, when the re-enacted their famous kiss for The MTV Movie Awards and felt a spark. (Oh, what a great PR piece.) Sometimes they date because they spend a lot of time together on set. And sometimes, as in the case of Stewart and Pattinson, they might not date at all — but they do very little to shut down the illusion that they might be.

The producers of Twilight are keenly aware of how a spectre of real-life romance will appease fans who have long willed such a connection to exist. As such, they have legislated how Stewart can appear in public: when she was officially dating her (supposedly now ex-) boyfriend Michael Angarano, she was not permitted to be photographed holding his hand or being intimate. Why? Because it would serve as proof that she was not, in fact, involved in a backstage relationship with her one and only love, Edward Cullen Robert Pattinson.

In Character as Bella and Edward

And any number of official publicity shots and appearances do very little to dissuade those who would like to believe in such a romance, as evidenced by the pictures below.

Out of Character: Extratextual Twilight Porn

What’s crucial to note here is how non-Bella (and non-Edward) both appear in the above photos — not only does Bella/Stewart suddenly have a sense of style (Bella does not — and she especially does not in the books, in which she regularly sports ugly long jean skirts). As for Edward/Pattinson, in the books, he is a VAMPIRE. With pale skin. Here, however, he just looks sexy/dirty.

The last picture is particularly fascinating, as it works very arduously to conflate the pair with their onscreen roles. The shot was taken at this past year’s MTV Movie Awards — and, as was the case with McAdams and Gosling, they were asked to recreate their kiss (or lack thereof) as Bella/Edward for the audience. The two moved in, very hesitantly, just as they do in the film, and simply let the tension sizzle for several moments, never actually kissing. Yet they were ‘dressed’ as their ‘real’ selves — while engaging in their characters’ behavior. They were, in essence, confirming what all Twilight fans would most like to believe: that the sexual tension and passion of the film is not a construction or an act — but real. Essential and vital.

And if it exists in ‘real life,’ then a fan’s fantasy of that love is not simply a fantasy — it’s authenticated and substantiated. A Stewart/Pattinson romance is proof positive that Twilight is not a silly, derided, absurdist, vampire text. It’s possible: something on which to stake one’s hopes and dreams for what love can and should look like.

Stewart and Pattinson matter, then, because love — and our fantasies of what love looks like — matters. No matter how silly you think Twilight fans are, fantasies — whether they involve Star Trek, Megan Fox, or drafting individual players onto football teams and competing with friends across the country — matter. What we think about when we’re not living our lives — how we’d like our lives to be, the ways we project our perfect selves — say so much about what may be lacking in our lives, and how we manage to make up for that lack and still live fulfilling lives in our non-fantasy worlds.

That’s why I don’t get grossed out or frustrated when I see the mags attempting to construct a torrid secret romance between the two. As unrealistic as the Bella/Edward romance is — and not only because it’s supernatural, but because it has some truly unrealistic components of devotion, selflessness, sacrifice, etc. — it brings people pleasure. This pleasure may be different than the pleasure I experience in breaking down this romance for you in this very post, but it is a very real pleasure nonetheless, and cannot be discounted.


- Posted by Ashley from iPhone


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